Interesting Ausmus Debate

added 4/23/2008 by Scott Barzilla

Go to Speedy's board and you will not find a more polarizing player than Brad Ausmus. People either love him or hate him. In fact, posters are almost defined solely on how they feel about Ausmus. The traditional fans tend to be pro-Ausmus because he embodies the things teams look for in a catcher. He calls a great game, blocks the plate well, and threw well in his prime. Naturally, fans of modern metrics see Ausmus as an anvil on the offense. Where is the truth? Well, let's find out.

Before we look at the offense it's time to set the ground rules. We are looking for the bottom ten catchers in history historically. So, I looked at catchers with more than 1000 games caught. This included more than 50 catchers, so it seemed to be a good amount. The metric used in this case is a metric called bases per outs (BPO). It adds total bases and walks and then divides that by outs. Here we see the worst of the worst.

Player                     BPO
Jim Hegan                  .537
Bob Boone                  .540
Ray Schalk                 .545
Wilbert Robinson           .549
Al Lopez                   .551
Brad Ausmus                .552
Luke Sewell                .556
Johnny Edwards             .571
Jim Sundberg               .572
Johnny Roseboro            .605

What we see is that Brad Ausmus rates in the middle of the bottom group. To be perfectly fair though, Ray Schalk and Wilbert Robinson played most or all of their careers in the Dead Ball Era. So, Bob Boone and Jim Hegan are the only ones noticeably worse than Ausmus at the plate. By the end of the season, Ausmus will likely pass Al Lopez to be in fifth place for the title of worst hitting catcher in history.

Ah, but Ausmus is a great defensive catcher. This is where the rub comes in. No one debates this fact, but great is an iffy term. Most of what catchers do is hard to rate. Matt Souders has tried to do that with Pythagorean Comparitive Analysis. It is similar in scope to win shares and WARP, but uses vastly different methodology. He gives more weight to defense than the others, so his metric is a good place to start.

Player                   PCA
Bob Boone               127.97
Al Lopez                108.81
Johnny Edwards          108.61
Jim Hegan               107.96
Jim Sundberg            104.54
Brad Ausmus              98.12
Ray Schalk               93.20
Luke Sewell              76.49
John Roseboro            76.15
Wilbert Robinson         55.93

Most of the players worse than Ausmus at the plate were rated higher defensively. However, this is where the bugaboo begins. How do you rate a catcher defensively? Blocking the plate (passed balls and wild pitches) is important. Throwing out would be basestealers is important. Calling a game is important. The problem is that there isn't an accepted metric to rate that right now.

The traditional argument for Ausmus is to run down the laundry list of pitchers that want Ausmus to catch them. This is certainly compelling, but I'm not sure how persuasive an argument it is. The assumption from the outside is that these guys know best, so we should defer to them. As a coach, I can say without hesitation that most athletes don't see the big picture. This is why so few of them become great coaches and managers. The best of the best get that way because they become hyper-focused. The big picture isn't necessarily their job.

The best example that comes to my mind were a couple of players on my team this year. The rest of the team felt very strongly that we could not win without them. In reality, we actually performed better when they didn't play than when they did. Of course, there was no way I was going to convince the athletes of that. Simply put, it is my job to put the best players on the floor. It is their job to perform. The same is true of the big leagues. The manager and the general manager assemble the team. When the players get too much input it usually ends up in disaster.

One of our resident bloggers Lisa Gray commented on the fact that Oswalt wants Ausmus to catch him despite the fact that Ausmus can't hit. "Surely, Oswalt is aware of Ausmus's batting average." Well, I'm not so sure about that. Oswalt is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he is great at what he does. He is hyper-focused when he is on the mound and it shows. If Roger Clemens could demand great defense and then decry the lack of offense at the same time, then it is clear he didn't quite understand cause and effect. That's okay, great athletes are great because they focus on what is important: their jobs. So, what athletes say about other athletes is interesting, but it just isn't that persuasive when put against overwhelming evidence.

What does this evidence say? It says he is among the top ten defensive catchers of all-time. It also says he is among the ten worst hitting catchers of all-time. One can co-exist with the other when he is performing at the top of his game defensively. He has been doing that for a few seasons now. Of course, sticking around to teach J.R. Towles is honorable and beneficial to him. As long as Ausmus doesn't play more than once a week we should be better off.